On May 1st last year Vladimir Putin pinned a Communist-era ‘Hero of Labour’ medal onto his good friend Valery Gergiev. This year, we could propose pinning a ‘Hero of Stagnation’ medal onto the current Commission President José Manuel Barroso whose term of office is coming to an end later this year.
Never before in the history of the European Union has unemployment exploded so rapidly as under Barroso’s leadership. Hectic activities were expected to counter the rise, but never before has so little been put in place so late to fight this dramatic development.
While in the first years of the crisis, there was a lot of talk about a possible lost generation and a lost decade, a Japanese winter, we now face it as a reality. The unconditional pursuit of rigid austerity policies combined with structural reforms and a systematic weakening of collective bargaining has had its effect and worsened the crisis in the countries of the Euro-periphery and in particular Southern Europe. The targets of the expensive rescue policy were not European citizens, the unemployed, youth, women, but the financial industry which continues to send money around the world, more than ever before. A substantial increase of taxation of wealth and fortunes would be an adequate response, but this discussion has not even started.
Which word would come to your mind thinking about the crisis and unemployment? Let’s have a look at the Commission’s stocktaking document on the Europe 2020 strategy and so we can see what’s on their mind: The word “progress” is used 26 times in the main document and 60 times in the annexes, but the term “failure” not even once. And what is the answer of the Commission to the dramatic rise of unemployment? The answer is as simple as this: we have to revive the long term objectives of the Europe 2020 strategy. This strategy has – according to the Commission’s assessment – delivered “mixed results”. The Commission’s stocktaking exercise on the Europe 2020 strategy (from March 2014) is optimistic: “A gradual recovery has set in since 2013 and is expected to continue”. Such a mitigated assessment is only possible if you do not prioritise the targets and “flagship initiatives”.
If you look closer at the facts, the short-term effects and not the long-term 2020 prospects, then the assessment cannot be “mixed”: The Europe 2020 strategy is off target for poverty – an increase from 114 million people to 124 million was registered – and on employment. It has become clear that the Troika and austerity policy have led to an impoverishment of the population and an increase of unemployment. Andreas Fischer-Lescano has just published an assessment on the Troika policy and called it “scandalous”. He criticised the European Parliament for not being successful in providing a platform for the poor and victims of austerity, for not being able to empower needy, humiliated, marginalised people and those deprived of their rights. The Troika should not be authorised to interfere in collective bargaining, in wage policy, in education, health and social policy. However, the ECB and the Commission are exceeding their competence and impinging on the rights of the Member States and their elected governments. The European ideal will be seriously damaged if the social question is not tackled in a positive way.
Expenditure on research and development remains one percentage point below the 3% target and well below the performance of the United States. The slightly positive results on energy efficiency can be traced to the crisis and the breakdown of industries; it has to be put in the context of ongoing deindustrialisation of Europe, in particular Southern Europe. A whole country like Greece has been squeezed and pushed nearer to the brink of the abyss – not only through the rise of unemployment, but also a significant rise in HIV infections, tuberculosis, stillbirths. Even economic sanctions couldn’t make things worse. Greece is forced to continue privatisation and an economic cure when it is clear that the patient will not survive.
The performance gap between the best and least well performing Member States is widening and also between regions inside and across Member States. In 2000 the gap between the highest and lowest ranked was 22.7 percentage points, with employment rates varying between 55.3 in Bulgaria and 78 in Denmark. In 2012, the gap was 24.1 percentage points with 55.3 in Greece and 79.4 in Sweden.
What does the Commission propose to tackle these growing inequalities? The Commission underlines that is has not drawn “policy conclusions nor made policy recommendations at this stage”. Instead the Commission announced a public consultation and proposals will be made “early in 2015”. Knowing the slow decision procedures inside the Commission, nothing will happen for a long while. Stagnation for Social Europe everywhere in Europe? The European elections are an opportunity to steer Europe into another direction and to give new drive to Social Europe.